Offense: 102.8 (17th)
Defense: 98.0 (3rd)
The Pistons don’t scare their opponents like they did last year. The most frightful thing heading into the Palace has become the fans, not the players. The reason this year’s squad doesn’t command the same respect is two fold. First the defense just isn’t as good as it was last year. After acquiring Rasheed Wallace, the Pistons defense was one of the best of all time. A year later the third ranked defense is super, but not dominant.
The second difference between last year’s championship team and this year’s version is the depth. The 2004 Pistons had 8 guys with a PER greater than Tayshaun Prince’s 13.3 on their playoff roster. This year they have 7 guys below that mark. Elden Campbell’s PER has been cut in half as he’s apparently taken a drive off Roberto Alomar Cliff, and worthless “Donnie” Darko Milicic might as well sit on the end of the Pistons bench wearing an eerie rabbit suit.
The core of the championship team is still there, plus McDyess (17.6 PER) who to the consternation of Knick is actually making a positive contribution to his team. Since they play in the Easy East, the only thing between them and the Finals is either a Shaq injury or beating him for the second year in a row.
Offense: 112.0 (1st)
Defense: 103.4 (14th)
The Suns are the sexy favorite to win it all. With Steve Nash at the helm, the offense purrs like a new engine through his gifted hands. Amare the Great and Shawn Marion seem to be a new generation of undersized front court players who succeed through superior physical ability. Watching the Suns score is like watching Cary Grant act, they just make it look smooth and easy.
Until of course they go to the reserves.
While I’d classify Detroit’s bench as below average, I’d call Phoenix’s craptacular. Their two best pine riders are uni-dimensional shooter Jim Jackson and shot blocker Steven Hunter. Barbosa has shown improvement and has moved up to being just a below average guard. Rounding out this sad bunch are three guys who would have trouble getting run on Charleville-M?zi?res: Bo Outlaw, Walter McCarty, and Paul “Don’t Call Me” Shirley. The Suns reserves are so bad that in an overtime game against San Antonio the starters played 244 of 265 (92%) possible minutes.
The Suns can win it all if their starters have no ill effect from playing so many minutes during the regular season, and can keep the bench on the bench.
Offense: 108.3 (2nd)
Defense: 100.1 (6th)
Although the Heat are primarily a two man squad, Miami has some decent pieces surrounding Shaq and Wade. Whether it’s the addition of the Big Guy, Wade’s rise into the NBA’s creme de la creme, or something else altogether, the Heat have gotten efficient scoring from the rest of their players. The league average for John Hollinger’s points per shot attempt (PSA) was 1.06 this year, and Miami has 7 guys that better that mark with 2 more that are above 1.03. Additionally, Damon Jones, Udonis Haslem, Christian Laettner, are sporting the highest PSAs of their career.
Miami’s weakness on offense is at the SF spot. For 10 years Eddie Jones has had a perfectly groomed moustache and an above average PER. This year he only has the ‘stache. Jones’ (13.9 PER) substitutes, Rasual Butler (10.6 PER) and Shandon Anderson (9.2 PER), don’t provide much in terms of scoring other than a nice free throw percentage. I’d have picked them as champions this year if it weren’t for …
Offense: 105.1 (6th)
Defense: 95.7 (1st)
If San Antonio and Miami meet in the Finals this matchup would be close, but I think the Spurs have a slight edge. Last year’s team was an average 14th in scoring, but this year the defense won’t have to carry the team alone. Tim Duncan has received a scoring boost from the continuing maturation of Tony Parker (18.4 PER) and Manu Ginobili (22.8 PER). While Devin Brown (14.9 PER) and Beno Udrih (14.6 PER) have given them some surprising production for youngsters, the Spurs have added veterans Brent Barry (14.3 PER), Nazr Mohammed (16.8 PER), and even Glenn Robinson (17.5 PER in 9 games). The Spurs have the deepest bench of the top 4 teams. Despite having all those offensive upgrades, the excellent defense is still the corner of this franchise.
Of course San Antonio’s problem is their health. In addition to Duncan taking it easy the last 4 games of the year, Rasho Nesterovic has been out two weeks with his ankle problem. Nazr Mohammed is more able than most backup centers, so San Antonio will be OK even if it takes a few more games for Rasho to get back. However they won’t reach the Finals without Duncan, who is pivotal to this team’s success.
This year’s playoffs seem to be a departure from previous years, where only one or two franchises were clearly dominant over the rest. While the Spurs are a holdover from the dynasty teams that ruled the NBA throughout the last decade, last year’s Pistons win coupled with the dissolving of the Lakers has created a fresh canvas for any team to make their mark. Not only are these 4 teams strong enough to go all the way, but none are so dominant that we can begin to etch their name into the record books. In fact I could argue that the field could be extended to 7 clubs. Consider that Seattle is still confounding their opponents, Denver had that phenomenal second half, McGrady and Yao look unstoppable, and Dallas had too good a regular season to write them off just yet. It shouldn’t be a surprise if any of these teams were crowned champions in June, and speaks well of the current parity we’re enjoying in the league.